St. Michael's Hospital. (Metro Wire photo)

Flu epidemic strikes early in central Wisconsin

By Brandi Makuski

The flu has hit central Wisconsin early—and it’s hitting hard.

Recent numbers from the state’s Department of Health Services show Wisconsin is averaging almost 100 hospital admissions for the flu on a daily basis.

This is the year of the H2N3 strain, according to County Health Officer Gary Garske, who warns the flu season hasn’t yet reached its peak.

“We just got the RVS (Respiratory Virus Surveillance) report,” Garske said. “Just for the week ending January 27 we’re basically off the charts. Our typical threshold [for flu] is 3.2 percent; as of January 27, we’re sitting over eight percent.”

Garske said of the 1,201 patients who were tested for the flu by the end of January, 312 tested¬†positive for Influenza A, and 40 were positive for Influenza B—a rate of about 30 percent across the region.

But many people never see a doctor for the flu, he said, adding reports of the ineffectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine have made for an even greater transmission of the disease.¬†

“The problem is, it’s already mutated from the time the vaccine was created,” he said. “That’s just the nature of the H2N3 virus; it’s constantly mutating.”

“Gary’s right; out in the community, it’s bad,” said Joe Gemza, assistant EMS chief at the Stevens Point Fire Department. “But we aren’t seeing a lot of calls for the flu, because right now, there are not a lot of people are calling 911 because they’re sick.”

Gemza said paramedics at SPFD have contacted local nursing homes, asking to be kept apprised if flu cases increase dramatically so the dept. can assist in containing the virus.

“People are going to get sick, we know that,” he said. “It’s the kids and the elderly who are most likely to get sick, but at the same time people also need to take responsibility for their health; you don’t want to walk out and get everyone sick. For the betterment of everyone, if you’re sick you should try to stay away from public spaces, and wash your hands; we like healthy people.”

Flu has hit the local schools, too, but so far it’s not so extreme as to upset the school day.

“Don’t misunderstand, we are still seeing typical illnesses due to flu, strep throat, headaches, colds, coughs, and G/I issues (nausea & vomiting),” said Kathy Graham, school nurse coordinator for the Stevens Point School District, in an email to the Metro Wire. “[But] the district does not have an extraordinary number of staff or children absent due to flu.”

Graham said as of Jan. 31, absenteeism rates vary, depending on the school, from as low as 2.94 percent to as high as 10.2 percent, but that number can change.

“Unfortunately, we have a lot of winter left and our absenteeism rate can change quickly,” she added. “We still need to remind our students, staff and families to practice good hand-washing, get the flu shot if they haven’t been immunized, stay home when ill, and do not return until symptom-free without medications.”

According to Stacey Firkus, an infection preventionist at Ascension St. Michael’s, the flu season seemed to kick off locally on Jan. 1.

“Since then, it’s definitely gone up quite a bit,” she said, adding the hospital has already admitted 38 flu-positive patients, mostly elderly.

“This flu season, like any flu season, is very busy. We are seeing increased sick calls from staff; but I would say right now, it’s typical,” she said.

Firkus recalled the 2015 flu season, which she referred to as “particularly bad”, with supply and staff shortages, so far, this year hasn’t reached that level of severity.

“We want to encourage everybody to get their flu shots, even though [the vaccine] isn’t a good match this year…the vaccine still covers three prevalent strains of influenza,” she said.

Garske said anyone who received this year’s flu vaccine can still get sick, but “the duration is shorter and the symptoms aren’t as serious.”

“We’re hearing it’s more of a respiratory thing this year; lots of cough, mucus and congestion,” he said. “What we’re telling folks is, if you have a fever, you should be fever-free without the help of a fever-reducing medication, like aspirin, for 24 hours before you go out into the public.

Feeling sick? Here’s what the experts interviewed above say:

Flu is different from a seasonal cold. It almost always comes with a fever and prominent headache, fatigue, weakness and body aches. Chest discomfort and coughing can become severe, and is sometimes accompanied by a sore throat and runny nose. 

“There is a 48-hour window for folks who do experience flu-like symptoms; you can go get tested and then request Tami-flu, but only in the first 48 hours,” Garske said. “It can relieve your symptoms. If you have a fever, stay home. Wash your hands, cough your cough, sneeze into your sleeve.”

Firkus said anyone who is sick should “self-quarantine.”

“Drink lots of fluids, take your vitamins and wash your hands a lot,” she said. “I know it’s hard, people feel guilty for missing work, but stay home.”